‘‘After you walk into a village and you see 50 children, all sitting neatly in a row, against a church wall, each with their throats cut and their hands chopped off, you realize that the creature that could do this doesn’t have a soul.’’ — Niko Bellic
We expect to enjoy computer games. A ‘‘game’’ is a folly, a frivolous pastime, unaccommodating of any afflatus that disturbs our enjoyment. At the same time, modern game makers, confronted by libraries of academic writing and seven figure budgets, hope to justify themselves alongside established art forms by penning hours of obtrusive dialogue.
Violent games have struggled to find a middle ground; bare faced shooters look puerile amongst a medium that is finally growing up, but try to moralise and you risk dispelling entire frat houses of core demographic. Though relentlessly exciting, the Call of Duty series has been repeatedly questioned over its unthinking representation of war. On the contrary, the lukewarm response to Homefront reflects an audience unprepared for anything too dank or wordy. These days, developers have to balance their violent games and make them fun but conscious at the same time.
At surface level, Grand Theft Auto IV behaves like Eli Roth’s Hostel, presenting players with a selection box of victims and a catalogue of weapons. You kill in the name of fun, shotgun-blasting dopey cops and watching them reel back in satisfying Euphoria. Park the main story for a while and you can saunter from street to street draining your AK into anything that moves. The game may respond by dispatching police officers, but they only add an extra flavour to your rampage. The Rockstar Advanced Game Engine is dedicated to bouncy car physics and flailing death animations that punctuate every spontaneous crime spree. Steal an attack chopper, jump off the Metalife building, firebomb an internet café — you can get a lot of riotous kicks from GTA IV and it never makes you feel guilty.
But with deference to Dan Houser’s script, Grand Theft Auto IV bares a tangible conscience. Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City a broken man, irreparably traumatised by childhood poverty and the Yugoslav wars. He’s looking for respite, not trouble, hoping that ‘‘perhaps here, things will be different.’’ But Niko is let down by Rockstar’s America; his cousin’s promises of wealth and women translate to a dilapidated apartment and visits to strip clubs. The online poker and fast food convenience that has Roman seduced alienates and confounds Niko. He sees his cousin as a helplessly enchanted moth, banging his head against corruptive promises of fortune. The rest of Liberty City are hardly better; their cultural diet of ‘‘I’m Rich!’’ and ultra-conservative talk radio has them desperately chasing tricked-out Humvees and size zeros, casually dropping hundreds of dollars on a ringtone. Bohan, Dukes and Hove Beach are littered with shallow pedestrians, willingly distracted by camera phones and celebrity goss.
Above street level, Francis McCreary, the peevish chief of the LCPD, repeatedly sends Niko to clean up the mess left by his own backward dealings. Then there’s United Liberty Paper, a murky government front that blackmails Niko into assassinations and espionage. Their representative, an expressionless man in dark glasses, underhandedly manipulates America from the top down, killing off diplomats and bribing press agents in the name of homeland security. On television, there’s Chloe Parker, the teen millionairess who makes headlines by going commando, and in the news, the Jingoism Act, a nationwide crackdown on civil rights predicated on racism and megalomania. So, at every turn, from East Bay to Happiness Island, Niko encounters the US at its worst; decadent and bloated, corrupt and guiltless, driven by the material obsessions of the many and venality of the few.
And gradually you’re infected with his cynicism. Grand Theft Auto IV channels Niko’s worldview through every mission and perambulation. Rockstar’s US is a living, breathing political cartoon, a send up of American culture tailored to Niko Bellic’s personal bias. He’s a sociopath, ruined by formative conflict, who wallpapers Liberty with his subjective disdain. Through his warped lens, America is a hyperactive parody of itself; Fox News becomes Weazel News. America’s Next Top Model becomes America’s Next Top Hooker. The NASDAQ becomes the BAWSAQ.
Grand Theft Auto IV’s subversive political discourse is relative to the mindset of its protagonist. His subjective filter contextualises Rockstar’s parody, but also permits our own sandbox impulses. The people we kill, for pleasure or otherwise, are symptomatic of praetorian institutions and cultural immorality. Our violence, though generally conceived from a boisterous urge to rampage, is characterised as righteous defiance, a physical manifestation of Niko’s empathetic anger. In his, and by proxy, our eyes, Liberty’s inhabitants are golems, icons of systemic Western depravity. They remind us that, when we hose down a Burger Shot with our M4, these people deserve it.
There’s an infrangible literature behind Grand Theft Auto IV that serves to validate our interactions. The game’s charged discourse complements our generic expectations, presenting violence as a perfectly acceptable reaction. Where John Marston’s guilt-ridden character cannot endure the player, Niko Bellic’s cynicism is a vector for our guiltlessness. His nihilism, as justified by every radio commercial and supporting character, homogenises with our playful violence. Grand Theft Auto IV discretely mutualises its consciousness with our fun, bridging the gap between renaissance thinking and blood hungry players. Our predilection to experiment is validated by a protagonist who is equally comfortable with killing.
Agent 47, from Io Interactive’s Hitman series, plays a similar mediating role between player disobedience and authorial presence. The result of a cloning experiment to combine the genes of the world’s finest contract killers, 47 murders his creator and flees to the criminal underworld, where he earns a mythical reputation as an assassin. Like Bellic, 47 is an outsider; his assassination contracts repeatedly ask him to go where he does not belong. ‘‘The Meat King’s Party’’ from Hitman: Contracts isolates the sexless, teetotal 47 in the middle of an opium-laced, bondage themed orgy. He’s a consistent presence in foreign countries, like India and Pakistan, where his skin colour and language distinguish him from the whole.
Barcoded, nameless and alopecic, 47 is an Other; a non-human. As the result of his unnatural birthing process, he’s genetically dissimilar from the people he kills. Human beings are a different species to 47, lesser creatures that do not relate to him on any cultural or biological level. Where humans are capable of guilt, remorse, fear and sadness, 47 has, quite literally, no humanity, no innate conscience.
As players, we inherit his raison d’être, to kill dispassionately. Like the jabbering drones of Liberty City, 47’s targets are deserving; drug lords, arms dealers, serial killers and paedophiles. But more so than Grand Theft Auto IV, our objective is to murder. Canonically, Niko Bellic is unwillingly violent; car jackings and drug runs go bad, attracting swarms of bad guys that stand between you and your escape. Though we expect violence, Niko Bellic resents having to use his gun. 47, on the other hand, is bred specifically to kill. Our mission objectives are not “lose the cops” or “destroy the radar.” They are “eliminate Giuliani” or “kill Swing King.” We, like 47, serve only to kill.
But we never feel guilty. Each level of Hitman is structured like a puzzle; there are multiple paths to and from your target that can be methodically planned over several playthroughs. Do we follow a police officer into the bathroom, garrotte him and take his uniform? Or do we risk a less bloody approach, sneaking past his friends into a restricted area? This trial and error, stop/start rhythm encourages us to scrutinise each environment with cold logic. We see security guards not as people, but as puzzle pieces, potential threats to our carefully exacted solution. Like 47, we dehumanise people. They are either functional or obstructive to our goal, which we pursue with computational pragmatism. Their depravity notwithstanding, Hitman draws such a great distance between us and our targets so that, like 47, we never register guilt. Our actions are validated by the game’s refusal to acknowledge people as people, a refusal contextualised by 47’s inhumanity, which excuses our guiltless pleasure.
We expect games to entertain us, but with academics and investors plugging computer games as the next major cultural breakthrough, it’s also expected of game-makers to steer the medium away from immaturity and inconsequence. Grand Theft Auto IV and the Hitman series are both vocal on the behalf of their designers; Rockstar’s politics ooze from Liberty City’s topography, whereas Io embroider Hitman with an emblematic, homogenous soullessness. Each game processes our determination to have fun through subjective lead characters, using our inveterate propensity for violence as a means of exploring their respective themes, environments and protagonists. It’s an idyllic feedback loop of player agency and artistic presence, where our proclivity for guiltless, bloody thrills complements narrative, and vice-versa.